Despite Threats and Extreme Rhetoric, War with North Korea Remains Unlikely

North Korea recently announced the successful testing of a hydrogen bomb. Though the White House has expressed its skepticism, the international community is already convening to determine the appropriate response and the severity of the threat from the isolated communist state.

Regardless of the validity of the reports, we should not lose sleep over the threat of impending mushroom clouds. Nor should begin the typical saber rattling that accompanies most stories coming from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

This is how I learned to stop worrying and learned to not fear a North Korean bomb.

From a strategic standpoint, war with North Korea is highly problematic. Most of the major scenarios—from “regime change” to an unprovoked attack by North Korea—become increasingly less likely when one considers the bigger picture.

War with North Korea Means War with China

Considering its imperialist past, Southeast Asia has often been at the whim of foreign influence—from the wave of 19th century European colonialism to the Russian-American proxy war that never officially ended.

Any conflict between North Korea and its regional foes—mostly, South Korea and Japan—would only serve as a proxy for the two major actors in this equation: China and the United States. Though the relationship between these two superpowers is tenuous, war is unlikely for a number of reasons.

First, despite the rhetoric of some of our more hawkish public figures, China does not want war with the United States for purely economic reasons. If China hypothetically backed a North Korean attack on Seoul or any other American ally, that would spell out events that would be detrimental to China’s primary interest: ensuring its place as the world’s number one economic force.

Currently, the Chinese and the United States have developed a new financial spin on the Cold War theory of “mutually assured destruction” (or “MAD” for you history wonks). The Chinese don’t shy away from the fact that they artificially devalue their currency by buying up American treasuries. This way, they can keep prices of their exports well below that of their competitors.

In continuation of an ever widening trade imbalance, $521 billion in Chinese exports have been gobbled up by consumers in the United States, making our country China’s largest customer.

Meanwhile, as much as it pains American exceptionalists to think that they are beholden to the Chinese government, Chinese ownership of American treasuries is the result of our refusal to solve the debt problem. Considering the trillions of dollars of debt and international trade that is at stake, conflict—whether through military action or economic sanctions—is a recipe for disaster for both sides of the yuan.

Second, even though North Korea gives the Chinese the occasional diplomatic headache, they put up with their neighbor’s erratic behavior for the sake of preserving the 38th Parallel. As long as the United States remains a military ally of South Korea, China would prefer to keep North Korea as both a buffer and a distraction.

Even if this geopolitical configuration is a relic of Cold War politics, China has a vested interest in the status quo of the region. Furthermore, a collapse of North Korea would create a flood of refugees into China—the likes of which would dwarf the recent Syrian episode.

Third, even if North Korea were to go rogue, the Chinese could rein in the situation quickly, because they control the purse strings for North Korea. As Kim Jong-un’s proverbial piggy bank, China is responsible for the majority of the country’s international commerce and foreign aid.

Despite engaging in trade sanctions with the North Koreans, China has doubled its foreign aid to the country. In 2014, North Korea received close to $7 billion in aid from China—roughly 20% of North Korea’s GDP. If anything, China possesses the capacity to be an influential arbitrator of peace by simply cutting off Kim Jong-un’s allowance.

Irrational is the New Rational

If you need a hint at the economic vitality of North Korea, simply Google “satellite images of North Korea at night.” Suffice it to say, North Korea suffers from a tremendous lack of resources.

Regardless of this scarcity, this country has cornered the market with one specific product: propaganda. Following 1953, North Korea’s war with the world has been predominately a rhetorical one. Lacking any full-scale capability to follow through on its threats, North Korea will continue to troll the international community because, well, that’s all they can do. North Korea is a toothless dog who incessantly barks but has no ability to bite.

China possesses the capacity to be an influential arbitrator of peace by simply cutting off Kim Jong-un’s allowance.

There have been numerous events throughout the contentious history of the Korean peninsula that the North has been the aggressor. Ranging from assassination attempts against South Korean leaders and naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea, North Korea has actively engaged in asymmetric acts of aggression against its neighbors, often times without provocation. But it’s precisely this history of lopsided aggression that highlights the true hollowness of North Korea’s rhetoric: If North Korea was actually going to launch a full-scale attack, they would have done so by now.

North Korea is engaging in what is commonly known as “madman diplomacy.” (Interestingly enough, this was a practice perfected by Richard Nixon.) This particular strategy involves the erratic behavior of one political actor as a means of encouraging other political actors not to provoke the “madman” out of fear of escalation. It’s a reheated version of deterrence theory that permeated the Cold War.

As strange as it sounds, North Korea’s irrational behavior is actually a very rational diplomatic action. North Korea holds few cards when it comes to international diplomacy. It’s not an economic superpower. It doesn’t produce some highly-valued commodity. It does not extract any precious minerals or fossil fuels.

The only card that North Korea holds right now is the assumption that they are—for a lack of a better term—crazy. Furthermore, if we push the wrong button, they might “go off” at any given moment. On top of that, this image is further reinforced by the fact that North Korea’s politically immature leader will do something rash as a means to “prove himself.”

This fearmongering is designed to have a coercive effect, and is probably being leveraged as a means to negotiate a comparable deal to the one Iran was able to achieve.

The North Korean Military: All Bark and No Bite

The one thing that North Korea has in its possession is a very large military: one million plus troops, close to seven million reserves, and a plethora of Soviet-grade armored vehicles and artillery.

At least on paper, they seem mighty.

“North Korea remains reliant on a predominately obsolescent equipment inventory,” states the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Prior to its fall, the Soviet Union was the largest military supplier to North Korea. The majority of North Korean tanks, artillery, vehicles, and military weapons originated in the former Soviet Union. Not only is the North Korean military stock old, but it’s not even paid for. It wasn’t until 2014 that Russia wrote off nearly $10 billion in debt owned by North Koreans for its military acquisitions made during the Cold War.

North Korea’s ability to fight in a prolonged conflict are minimal at best. North Korea can’t access enough fuel to power all of their tanks, planes, and helicopters at the same time. North Korea possesses no aircraft carrier, so foreign projection of power is limited. Also, with their own drought issues, food shortages, and crippling international sanctions, North Korea wouldn’t have enough food rations for its troops.


 

Do we need to take North Korea seriously? Yes and no.

For reasons of regional stability, the international community must keep all diplomatic lines of communication open, and mitigate any possible conflict. However, with a proper historical and political context, we need to understand that North Korea is not a direct threat to the United States, nor will it be given its current trajectory.

All North Korea is doing now is trying to negotiate with what little political leverage it possesses. The end result will most likely be a cessation of tension and the continued isolation of North Korea. That is until Kim Jong-un decides to play “madman” again in the near future.